Transparency International is a global movement working in over 100 countries to end the injustice of corruption. Country chapters hold the powerful to account for the common good.
Through research, advocacy and campaigning, they work to expose the systems and networks that enable corruption to thrive, demanding greater transparency and integrity in all areas of public life. Transparency International Cambodia was founded in 2010 by anti-corruption activists committed to the creation of an accountable and transparent Cambodia.
In order to survive and operate in a severely restricted environment, and be resilient to attacks, Transparency International Cambodia has had to adapt its approach. By working with all stakeholders and balancing advocacy with strengthening of service delivery, TI Cambodia aims to ensure a perception of neutrality. This approach helps to enable its ongoing access in the country whilst strengthening civil society capacity and participation, thereby keeping the space for civil society functioning.
Anytime TI Cambodia releases new reports or research reflecting the levels of corruption in Cambodia, the country chapter’s relationship with the government is jeopardised (given the government’s sensitivity to criticism and aversion to accountability). Calculating how far they can go with their advocacy, in order to maintain their neutrality and avoid the risks associated with speaking out, is a constant balancing act. On the other hand, if their relationship with the government becomes too close, they risk becoming trapped and unable to speak out at all. Engagement therefore has to be measured, with a relationship that is not too close, but workable. They manage this by focusing all engagement with ministries on capacity building for transparency, accountability and integrity alone. In that way, the relationships are not so close as to constrain TI Cambodia’s programmes, and they can still act in pursuit of their main mission.
Lack of government capacity
The government ministries and offices are understaffed and under-resourced. This means that they welcome resources and capacity-building from TI Cambodia, however it also means that initiating any joint work requires high levels of negotiation. The lack of capacity makes it difficult for departments to maintain new activities, and they often want more support than TI Cambodia can provide. For example, when introducing the mobile app for public engagement around service delivery, the department in question was concerned about how they would continue to operate and maintain the app, and wanted more technical support from TI Cambodia on this.
When employing a balanced approach in order to cement a perception of neutrality, it is vital that advocacy is data-driven or evidence-based. Any statements or positions must be based on research and facts on the ground, rather than on opinion alone. In a space that is so narrow, it’s vital that everything is backed up by the research and evidence, so that a policy position that differs from the current practice or that is critical of the current reality is not a position against the government, but rather a position basedon the facts. This is constraining for the organisation, as it means they are not able to express perceptions and opinions freely. However, by working with all stakeholders, and not favouring one actor over another, TI Cambodia maintains the legitimacy to be critical.
Finding the right level
TI Cambodia’s work with the government is based on relationships with reform-minded officials and technical staff within ministries and departments rather than with those in top positions. TI Cambodia has built relationships with specific offices and mid-level government staff who understand that corruption is an issue and who want to see reform. More generalised pushback or stigmatisation from, for example the Anti-Corruption Commission, does not tend to damage that engagement.
Coalitions are a form of protection
TI Cambodia has also found that working in coalition with other CSOs on certain issues ensures that single organisations are not so easily targeted and that together their voices are stronger and louder. This has been an important protective strategy when advocating on critical issues such as corruption and transparency in such a limited space.
In general, the balanced approach that TI Cambodia has taken by engaging with all stakeholders as equals has helped to secure its reputation as a neutral institution, mitigating the government’s misperception that TI Cambodia is somehow affiliated with the opposition party or linked to foreign interests. Relationship building of this kind enables TI Cambodia to continue its interventions in the country, and to avoid crackdowns or attacks.
The project that TI Cambodia has initiated with the Ministry of Interior is still underway, and so it is challenging to draw conclusions about the extent of the impact achieved at this stage. What they have seen, however, is that the project has expanded narrow civic space, by enabling youth, particularly those living in rural areas, to engage in more social and civic activities.
By partnering with the Ministry of Interior, TI Cambodia is able to work with relevant authorities at different levels. Without such a partnership, CSOs normally need permission from national or sub-national authorities in order to implement their programmes. Working without those permissions would most likely result in surveillance and the interruption of activities by authorities.
Helvetas is an independent organisation for development based in Switzerland, which supports poor and disadvantaged women, men and communities in 30 developing and transition countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
Together with partners, Helvetas aims to tackle global challenges at multiple levels: with projects on the ground, with expert advice, and by advocating for conducive framework conditions benefiting the poor.
When civic space is closing at the national level, international mechanisms become more important, but are not always easy to access for national or sub-national organisations. Helvetas responded to this challenge by developing guidance for its country offices and local partners on how to advocate through the United Nations human rights system when national governments may be restricting civil society. The guidance sets out multiple entry points for advocacy beyond national boundaries through which national decision makers can be held to account, and which allow sensitive issues to be addressed in a safe space without exposure.
Securing organisational buy-in for this work can be challenging: there is some critique that it can feel like ‘just another paper’, and there have been questions about what the real outcome of these processes is if governments then don’t change their behaviour. It can be a long process, but advocates have underlined that it is still valuable in terms of providing safe space for groups to raise issues of concern, and that is an achievement regardless of government action or inaction following any reporting. International or multilateral-level work, and the creation of a safe space for discussion and exchange, is even more important when national-level space is severely restricted, helping to aid the resilience of civil society in the long-term.
There are concerns about how to secure long-term funding, as donors can be wary of advocacy work in restricted environments.
Mitigating the risk of exposure
Local partners may be concerned about the risk involved in engaging in these consultations, as it can require a certain level of exposure. This can be mitigated by integrating information into joint stakeholder reports (e.g. CIVICUS in Country A).
Be selective and strategic
It is vital to filter and select those UN mechanisms which suit your work: the UN system is large, multi-layered and complex, and so it is important to focus time and resources only on those mechanisms which have a chance of supporting your work.
Facilitation is key
Facilitation capacity at country level is key. Helvetas have found that the process is most successful when there is someone in the country office who both knows the lay of the land and who has the capacity to convene, coordinate and facilitate civil society groups on the ground to contribute to any report or process.
It is important that this facilitator role does not set the agenda. They need to help structure things, but also ensure that there is space for issues to be raised by local partners, enabling national voices and agency.
There has been demand and appreciation from country offices for this cross-cutting advocacy support and the strategic use of UN human rights mechanisms to strengthen country-level and thematic work. Feedback indicates that it is helpful to have someone processing national issues into ‘UN language’, and supporting the consultations (these consultations must follow certain rules and procedures, and be structured in a certain way in order to comply with UN standards and terminology).
The consultations provide a safe space for constructive dialogue between civil society and government, and this itself opens up civic space and builds capacity and resilience at the local and national level, building the confidence of local partners to speak out.
Formal recommendations issued under the UPR (or other UN) Process are recorded and can be a powerful point of reference for advocacy at all levels.